Being in Munich for Oktoberfest was a bit like being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras: It was an accident and I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until someone else told me.
In all fairness, I hadn’t intended to be in Munich for Oktoberfest. Rather, I had tickets to an Elton John concert that was cancelled (and rescheduled for two years from now!) because of Germany’s Covid regulations. Any reason to travel is a good one, and so, concert or not, I decided to head to Munich.
I arrived after dark on Friday night but I could already tell that being in a city felt rather different to my small town. There was something about the amount of light, the sheer number of buildings (though they were a far cry from what my Singapore and New York lives would consider tall), and the ambient noise that showed me how accustomed I’ve grown to my current environs. Despite this reaction , it was precisely my years of city living that immediately had me feeling comfortable navigating Munich’s excellent public transportation system.
The weather throughout the weekend was gorgeous, 20° and bright blue Bavarian skies. This meant that I was outside the whole time and have saved the indoor recommendations (all suggestions thanks to a friend who had lived in Munich for a time) for a future visit.
On Saturday morning I got a coffee and sandwich and sat in Marienplatz to watch the world go by. As I am directionally challenged, this became the centre of Munich in my head and I returned to this spot multiple times to reorient myself. The famed Glockenspiel at the Rathaus, or New City Hall, puts on two performances at 11am and 12pm to bring some of Munich’s history to life. It was charming and I had to smile at the excitement that must have caused in the early twentieth century.
The day began in earnest with a walking tour in which we learned about the history of Munich and Bavaria and talked about beer culture. The tour guide, Jax, explained that the façades of Munich’s buildings were redone after the war, often in very clever ways. The buildings themselves are therefore not old, considering about 50% of the city was damaged during the war, but their careful consideration of the past has lent the old town an old feel.
Our tour also touched on Munich’s role in Hitler’s rise to power. I didn’t realize that the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch that landed Hitler in jail, where he subsequently wrote Mein Kampf, had taken place here. It was an interesting juxtaposition to talk about this just before heading into the beautiful Englischer Garten, originally the royal private garden that, once opened to the delighted public in the late 1700s, became the home of Oktoberfest.
The Englischer Garten is Munich’s largest park and these photos do not do it justice. In addition to being historically interesting, it also held a first for me: Watching people surf in a public park.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That was the last photo I took on Sunday. Back to the tour on Saturday, which concluded with my favourite part: Viktualienmarkt!
If you’ve followed this blog for any of my travels, you already know how much I enjoy markets. Please feel free to skip to the photos. If you’re new here, welcome! To sum it up, I really enjoy markets. I love the people, the energy, the community built around food. I love the smells and tastes and the fact that everything you purchase comes from a real person who is standing right there in front of you, and who could probably tell some sort of story about what you’re buying. I love the interaction and the camaraderie that comes from watching others and being caught in the act of watching. All kinds of people shop at markets, and markets cater to so many traditions and flavours. One must only glance at the colours, the careful presentation of goods, and the handwritten signs to witness the collective humanity that has created this place. Walking through a market tells us something about the culture of a place and the people who make their home and livelihood there. There is so much to see and so many opportunities to experience something new.
After the tour concluded, I returned to Viktualienmarkt, had something to eat, took some photos, and watched people. Even though the tourist events and big Oktoberfest celebrations were cancelled, it was a treat to watch people going about their business in Drindl and Lederhosen, and then joining their fellow Bavarians at the many beer gardens and beer halls. I did my part by sampling kaiserschmarrn and pretzels with obatzda in my breaks from wandering around.
My Oktoberfest experience came later, however. Due to the beautiful weather, I was determined to remain outside as long as I could. This first meant standing in line to climb the tower at Saint Peter’s Church. I do enjoy a good church tower for a view and the passing people, many in traditional clothing and having a good time, provided plenty of diversions. Half an hour in line and about 300 steps later brought a wonderful view. People had said you can see all the way to the Alps and they were absolutely right.
Later that afternoon I went out to Olympiapark, both for the walk and the view. Munich is a city full of parks and I was so glad to see people enjoying the weather and one another. I was also glad for so much greenery in a city! That being said, Munich is far from crowded and congested. With a population of about 1.5 million people, it is affectionately referred to as a “large village”. I cannot imagine this place with the 6-7 million visitors that come for Oktoberfest during a normal year, and I’m honestly not sorry I missed it.
Which brings me to . . . Oktoberfest!
The friend who offered suggestions also provided a list of her favourite beer gardens and I tried, I really did. I’m not one to shy away from being alone in public places, but the essence of beer gardens and beer halls is that you sit down at a communal table, introduce yourself, and enjoy your time there. This was an uncomfortable thing to try alone, even though I found plenty of single seats when I looked around. Since beer in Bavaria brings people together, I was not inclined to take the communal out of it. And I had no intention of attempting small talk in German while everyone else was at a party.
And then I got lucky. I had given up on a beer garden and decided I’d have a drink outside and watch the world go by. But then I heard music and the man at the door directed me up the stairs to the drinks-only open-air balcony above a beer hall. I found a spot by the railing and laughed out loud. The music, costumes, food, huge beer steins, the noise, laughter, drinking songs: It was just like the movies.
I was in Munich for a real Oktoberfest because a concert and the tourist parties were cancelled. The world works in strange ways, and this one treated me very well indeed.
The next morning, I headed to a vegan café for brunch and then continued wandering in the sunshine, visiting some of the same spots I had been to the day before. I redid some photos and wandered through more of the Englischer Garten than I had first seen, and then it was time to go. I still have a list of places to go and foods to try, and it’s only three hours away; I suspect I’ll be back.